It’s become such a frequently voiced note by the Republican candidates for president that it’s almost party orthodoxy: to hold back Mexican drug violence supposedly about to engulf the United States, we should fence off Mexico and guard the line with aggression. Mitt Romney supports building a fence. Michele Bachmann promises a “double” fence. Rick Perry calls for a border “shut down” with sensors and “aviation.” And last month two two retired generals, including Barry McCaffrey, a former drug czar, added to the chorus, testifying before members of the House homeland security committee in a session titled “A Call to Action: Narco-Terrorism’s Threat to the Southern U.S. Border.” They presented the report (PDF) they wrote for Texas’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. It states that life in U.S. border counties is already “tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”
I was curious about this combat zone. I’ve covered conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, and so I was keen to take stock of America’s war zone. I chose Laredo, Texas. The city sits across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, one of Mexico’s most lawless cities, which is dominated by the vicious Zetas cartel. Zetas covet Laredo’s access to drug-running routes on highways to the east. An A&E reality series about the Laredo police drug squad called it “ground zero in the war on drugs.” It seemed like it might be a hot zone.
I flew into the Mexican side, to Nuevo Laredo, and a Mexican taxi driver with the commonly held border visa took me to the U.S., crossing one of the three bridges between the two cities. The two Laredos are inseparable. Their opposing downtowns resemble one unified city clustered around a hook in the river, with similar vintage brick buildings and drab storefronts.
But they are very different places. In the American Laredo, crime, it turned out, was down. And I saw no signs of battle. The sprawling Mall del Norte was packed with holiday shoppers. Families lingered over dinners at restaurants close to the river. Hotels were full with gas workers on an energy boom and Mexican families; the city has enormous stores where Mexican buses disgorge cross-border consumers. I arranged to meet a judge from the local drug court; he felt safe talking into the night at an outside table at Starbucks. “There’s no comparison,” between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, said a Mexican businessman who moved north after a kidnapping and years of extortion. His big gripe was the cost of Laredo labor.
Most people in Laredo are of Mexican descent (Texas used to be Mexico, after all) and until a few years ago Nuevo Laredo was the place to eat and party. U.S.high schools held proms there. Economically, the city of about 236,000 depends on its Mexican neighbor, population maybe 380,000. At least 4,000 trucks a day roll over a bridge from Mexico, stopping at warehouse complexes to transfer their loads for delivery around the country. Drug-war refugees from Mexico are moving in with money and businesses. Despite high poverty rates, unemployment is lower in Laredo than in the rest of the country.
While McCaffrey’s report is alarmist and selective—local officials say he never consulted them—violence is indeed committed regularly here by cartels in the United States. Laredo police recently arrested a suspected Zeta for arranging three local murders. Houston police say Zeta operatives recently ambushed and killed the driver—secretly working with police—of a truck carrying marijuana to a deal.
There are many other cases but “spillover” violence has long fluctuated, not spiraled. In 2003, Laredo saw 29 murders amid a series of cartel killings. There have been only seven homicides this year, down from nine last year—below the national average. Overemphasizing the border could suck resources from other places they’re needed. Cartels supply Americans’ drug demand through local American gang franchises around the country and sometimes kill on U.S. soil.
But on the other side of the border, in Nuevo Laredo, there is a real war going on. That much was evident during a walk I took in the downtown area. The government removed the local police because of suspicions that they collaborate with the cartels. So instead of cops Mexican soldiers patrolled the plaza in pickup-truck convoys, manning mounted machine guns. Federal police drove tanklike armored cars. People did errands and relaxed in parks but many stores were shuttered, a result of the suffocating extortion rackets and an absence of American tourists. A business owner said you can spot Zeta lookouts by their crewcuts and radio phones. Another said it’s easier than that: “They brag about it.”
I may have walked around in Nuevo Laredo but I did those interviews in the American Laredo. In Nuevo Laredo people are scared to talk to reporters about crime, especially after a woman’s decapitated body was dumped on the Christopher Columbus monument in September. A handwritten sign said she was killed for reporting to a website where locals shared information on Zeta threats and movements. Local papers avoid crime news and are infiltrated by Zeta informants (as previous cartels have done before them). Shootouts between the army and criminals go uncovered, including one recently that, locals say, delayed a school opening while narco bodies were cleared. The government counted 115 murders there in 2010 and the Laredo Morning Times cited a state tally of 109 for the first half of 2011. Surely many others were not reported to authorities.
What prevents that carnage from spreading north is the strength of U.S. institutions compared with those in Mexico, which have been poor and corrupt forever. Laredo has a large and visible presence of local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials focused on the cartels and sharing information. The Zeta behind the three Laredo murders was reportedly detected first in federal wire taps passed to police. Police flagged the suspect to border agents who arrested the ringleader when he tried to cross a legal bridge entry.
A business owner said you can spot Zeta lookouts by their crewcuts and radio phones. Another said it’s easier than that: “They brag about it.”
With a $4.3 million federal grant last year, Laredo police added 22 officers to the approximately 400 it already had. Unable to afford its own helicopter, the department painted numbers on squad car roofs and shared its radio frequencies so state and federal chopper pilots can speak directly to cops. Chief Carlos R. Maldonado has police move in low-profile ways because Zetas study their tactics. He says he’s strengthened his internal-affairs staff to watch for corruption, an occasional problem among Laredo public officials.
What Maldonado says he does not need is a fence the length of the border. His view reflects the mood in the heavily Democratic, Latino community. “There is no physical barrier that will separate Mexico and the United States,” he says. Families, businesses and, yes, gangs are too intertwined. It reminds me of how some of the 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. legally. Sure, you need controls. But it’s hard to see how lining the border with troops, fences, or sensors—at a cost of billions—would stop a few, or few dozen, Zetas from infiltrating Laredo or, say, Boston. The question is not whether we can keep them all out but: what do we let them get away with when they arrive?